In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are reevaluating the role of work in their lives. After years spent overworking, this new line of thinking led people to prioritize personal and family commitments. Workers who could shift to remote work or adopt more flexible scheduling found that they were able to strike a better work-life balance—a considerable benefit, especially for those experiencing burnout, hardship, and intensified care responsibilities.
But when hours are long and arduous, simply offering flexibility is insufficient. Society must adjust its expectations on how much work is enough to alleviate the burden on workers and truly improve the quality of their jobs and lives. When designed correctly, a four-day workweek has the potential to show workers respect for their personal lives by giving them more time for rest and recovery. Ideally, a policy reform would implement the four-day workweek and establish a lower threshold for overtime work, universalizing across states and industries a standard for overtime as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
A popular conception of the four-day workweek is condensing 40 hours into four days. This has gained interest among stakeholders who link productivity with hours worked and are concerned about maintaining productivity levels. However, companies have reported increased productivity and morale after adopting a reduced workweek. These benefits, though, are limited in reach; the prevailing framework for a 40-hour intensive workweek mainly benefits white-collar workers who will simply compress their work into their new schedule at the office. Businesses that employ low-wage workers whose productivity is closely tied to their presence at work may not see the same productivity increase. However, they could still benefit from a happier, more rested staff.
Furthermore, four 10-hour days may be exhausting and challenging to manage for those who perform more physically demanding tasks. Others, such as healthcare providers, already struggle with long shifts over fewer days. Merely condensing the 40-hour workweek reinforces current workplace disparities by not offering relief to low-wage hourly workers. More than half of US workers are paid hourly, and 44% earn low wages; these workers are disproportionately women, immigrants, workers of color, or younger, less-experienced workers. These workers may end up working longer laborious shifts, if impacted at all.
An alternative approach to a four-day workweek redefines full-time employment as 32 hours per week, allowing salaried workers to distribute those hours over the week and allowing hourly workers to collect overtime pay for work exceeding 32 hours per week. We need a policy-driven approach that standardizes a 32-hour workweek which presents an opportunity for all workers to benefit from a four-day workweek, especially those historically excluded. A four-day workweek can and should be considered from the perspective of workers who deal with difficult working conditions daily—including retail, food, and service industry workers with low pay, few benefits, and limited flexibility.
Salaried, white-collar workers are more likely to have time-related benefits such as paid time off and control over their time. In contrast, hourly workers in the retail and food industries often work weekends, double shifts, holidays, and other undesirable shifts. Reducing the number of hours required for full-time employment would allow them to work fewer undesirable shifts, directly improving the quality of their life. If implemented correctly, a four-day workweek holds the potential to improve the lives of these workers drastically. It could stand out as an exemplary policy for intentionally including low-wage workers instead of continuing to exclude them from labor protections.
Although reducing the threshold for full-time work holds promise, it is not without risks. If not accompanied by a rise in pay, a shorter workweek would mean lower incomes for hourly workers, many of whom already struggle to make ends meet, especially given employers’ tendency to avoid allowing overtime. Reduced pay for one job may lead to workers taking on multiple jobs, thereby defeating the purpose of a shortened workweek.
A shift to a shorter workweek only serves workers if it is accompanied by a minimum wage increase so that workers earn at least the same amount at 32 hours that they would have made in 40 hours. With such a policy in place, workers who desire to work more than 32 hours per week would become eligible for overtime pay at a lower threshold, affording them bigger paychecks if they maintained their 40-hour schedule. Businesses may independently seek a four-day workweek to improve jobs and increase employee satisfaction. However, implementing a policy across all employers lessens the risk of exacerbating the disparities between high- and low-wage workers.
Whether implemented through policy change or company practice, recent pilot programs have provided insight into the potential benefits and challenges of a new system. In Japan, where the term karoshi, meaning “death by overwork,” was coined in the 1970s, the government has recommended that companies consider a four-day workweek to ease worker stress and offer more flexibility. In response, Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day workweek, and productivity increased by 40%. Panasonic took similar action.
Sociologist Juliet Schor has found that shorter work weeks can yield decreased employee stress and reduced turnover for businesses. Employers have also found that workers reach their targets with greater efficiency and enthusiasm after implementing a four-day workweek. While Belgium is the only country with legislation on four-day workweeks, public offices in Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Scotland, Canada, and Iceland have introduced pilot programs.
Most recently, an alliance of institutions including 4 Day Week Global, 4 Day Week UK Campaign, Autonomy, Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College launched a four-day work week trial that includes more than 3,000 workers across the UK for six months. The workers will perform 80% of their hours while earning 100% of their pay. This pilot is the largest trial to date and will provide more data on the effects of the four-day workweek on productivity and workers’ lives. Although each of these pilots has adopted different variations of the four-day workweek, they all illustrate the feasibility of a shorter workweek.
Implementing a four-day workweek by lowering the threshold for full-time work, combined with an increased minimum wage and improved scheduling flexibility, could significantly improve work for millions. A uniform policy approach considers those most in need while benefiting the entire workforce. While there are other approaches to enhancing work-life balance, addressing the length of the workweek gives workers their time back—respecting their agency and truly making strides toward a more balanced work-life reality.
Tweet In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are reevaluating the role of work in their lives. Writing for @AspenFutureWork, @banks_camryn highlights an inclusive approach to a four-day workweek that helps all workers strike a better work-life balance.
Tweet A four-day workweek holds potential to improve workers’ lives — but only if it’s implemented equitably. Read more from @banks_camryn @AspenFutureWork. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/how-to-design-a-four-day-workweek-that-values-workers-not-hours